April 25, 2022 8 min read

By Stuart Taylor, Jr. and Edward L. Yingling -- co-founders of Princetonians for Free Speech
It is critical to understand that the controversy over Princeton University’s recklessly false, continuing, institutional reviling of Professor Joshua Katz as a racist since early 2021 is about much, much more than the fate of a single professor.

It is about a concerted effort by President Eisgruber and his subordinates, now enabled by the Board of Trustees, to carve the heart out of Princeton’s acclaimed free speech rule by denying its protection to any professors or students who are savaged and defamed for their speech by the University itself – the most powerful entity to which the rule was intended to apply.

It is also critical to understand that Eisgruber has decreed cynically that the free speech rule itself protects University officials when using its official website and other University resources to smear, defame, and harass individual professors and students for their speech. His theory is analogous to saying people in a mob shouting down a speaker are exercising protected free speech.

Directly contrary this newly created Eisgruber doctrine, as his perversion of free speech should be called, Princeton’s free speech rule in fact explicitly denies its protection to anyone and everyone whose speech “falsely defames a specific individual” or “constitutes . . . harassment.” The University is doing both by authorizing the dishonest smearing of Katz as a racist by unidentified Eisgruber subordinates on Princeton’s official website.

It is further critical to understand that the Board of Trustees has now rubber stamped Eisgruber’s position by its risible tribute (based on a bunch of Eisgruber platitudes) on April 18 to Eisgruber’s supposed "outspoken defense of free speech and academic freedom.” The board did this when it announced the extension of his 9-year tenure for least five more years.

Indeed, the Eisgruber approach to free speech, so effusively praised by the Trustees, has in recent weeks been eloquently denounced by each of the nation’s three most respected campus free speech groups. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) sent the Board of Trustees a blistering assessment of Princeton’s attacks on Katz’s free speech in a March 9 letter. The Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) did much the same in a March 29 letter to President Eisgruber from its Academic Committee Chair, Princeton Professor (and leading free speech scholar) Keith Whittington.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) issued a statement (quoted in a RealClearPolitics article) that "Princeton's absurd labeling of its slickly produced website insulting Professor Katz – created at the behest of and sponsored by a half-dozen administrative offices, with its own subdomain on Princeton's site – as not an ‘official University document’ shows that its pronouncements simply cannot be trusted. Faculty, students, and alumni should avoid putting much stock in Princeton's promises of free speech or of anything else as long as the university leadership is so obviously and blatantly willing to put politics over principle.”

In addition, there is the letter that PFS sent the Trustees on March 15 laying out in detail the University’s free speech violations and urging the Trustees to commission an investigation into the University’s persecution of Katz.

Eisgruber and the Trustees have ignored the criticisms by ACTA, FIRE, and PFS. Eisgruber also rejected the AFA’s criticism in a condescendingly worded, March 31 letter that contained numerous misleading statements, which are detailed in a three-part analysis on the PFS website.

Most importantly, he wrote that the website attacks by University officials on Katz are themselves protected by the University’s free speech rule. That is the core of the Eisgruber doctrine. Its logic suggests that Princeton faculty and students are not protected by the free speech rule from even the most grievous gang harassment by Eisgruber subordinates who are displeased by their speech.

Eisgruber has thus revealed that he thinks the main threat to free speech in the matter of Katz is not to the professor who has been dishonestly savaged for his speech, but to the Eisgruber administration officials who have been and still are misusing the University’s official website and other University resources to defame him.

More recently, an implicit but forceful rejection of the Eisgruber doctrine came from within Princeton’s own faculty, according to knowledgeable sources, in a unanimous vote on April 19 by the Princeton Committee on Conference and Faculty Appeal, comprised of nine faculty members. This committee acts as a board of review for complaints of unfair treatment of individual faculty members. While the appeal committee’s findings are not yet public, according to reliable sources it soundly rebuked a high-ranking Eisgruber subordinate’s summary rejection of a formal complaint seeking an investigation into attacks on Professor Katz on the University’s official website.

This October 4, 2021 complaint, filed by Professor Sergiu Klainerman and seven other professors, was that unnamed officials had violated University rules by using the website to smear Professor Katz as a racist based on a controversial 2020 Quillette article in which he harshly criticized some (while approving other) race-related demands by activist faculty members.

The appeal committee’s detailed letter, according to sources, upheld an appeal to the committee by Klainerman of the official rejection of his complaint by Michele Minter, Associate Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity, on December 7, 2021. The appeal committee’s letter found fault with multiple aspects of Minter’s ruling, according to the sources. The letter said that all members agreed that the Minter letter dismissing the complaint was contrary to University policies and that the complaint raised issues that should be investigated. The committee is chaired by Professor Jean Schwarzbauer.

While the appeal committee letter does not directly discuss the Eisgruber letter to AFA, it does, again according to sources, directly contradict the core argument that Eisgruber made in his letter: that the University is not attacking Professor Katz; rather it is individual administrators who are, and they are protected by Princeton’s free speech rule. But the facts show that it is the University that is attacking Katz, through the direct, public involvement of ten different university departments and offices. The website in question even contains the trademark and copyright of the University. Reportedly, the appeal committee said it is clear that the University is carrying on the attack through an official university document – i.e., the website.

In addition, in their complaint the eight professors requested an investigation into the doctoring by an unidentified Eisgruber subordinate or subordinates of a quote from Katz’s Quillette article to support their portrayal of Katz as a racist. The official or officials deleted, without ellipsis, the phrase “(including the many black students)” from the following Katz sentence: “The Black Justice League, which was active on campus from 2014 until 2016, was a small local terrorist organization that made life miserable for the many (including the many black students) who did not agree with its members’ demands.”

Contrary to a claim in Eisgruber’s response to the AFA that this deletion was an “error,” it would not take much investigation to show that it was much more likely a deliberate and malicious falsification, designed to shore up the University’s dubious claim on the website – unsupported by evidence -- that Katz is a racist. This doctoring, according to sources, was deemed especially offensive by the faculty appeal committee.

In short, Eisgruber’s highly deceptive message that he is the one protecting free speech is contradicted by the independent organizations such as ACTA, the AFSA, and FIRE that have so harshly criticized him, and now even by his own faculty appeal committee.

Eisgruber apparently thinks that he knows more than any of the independent experts and, judging from his response to the highly respected AFA, conveys thinly veiled contempt for their views. And yet he has offered nothing that could be called a logical defense of the Eisgruber doctrine, while his critics have been eloquent and logical in their assessments of Princeton’s free speech deficits.

The consequence of the Eisgruber doctrine is that any student or faculty member can be viciously and dishonestly attacked by Eisgruber’s bureaucracy, with the use of the University’s multiple resources, in the guise of free speech – even in an effort to drive him or her out of the University.

Why did Eisgruber, whose record on free speech seemed pretty good before the summer of 2020, become so hostile a mere two years later to speech that challenges campus orthodoxy? In recent months his actions (and failures to act) speak much louder than his words. Why? Could it be fear of the legions of diversity-equity-inclusion bureaucrats and faculty that Princeton has hired? Has he determined that these are the people who pose the greatest risk to him?

Consider the following two examples, of which there are many more. First, Eisgruber stood by while the orientation in August for the entire entering class contained a presentation that not only attacked Professor Katz, but which presented a pervasively negative view of free speech. The only specific comment on free speech in the entire orientation was a negative one by Classics Professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta, who went on to say that Princeton should provide students “with the tools to tear down this place and make it a better one.” Why was there not one word said in defense of free speech or about Princeton’s free speech rule in the orientation? This sad state of affairs has been directly brought to Eisgruber’s attention, and yet he has said nothing, giving his own administrators free rein to continue to attack free speech.

More recently, Princeton administrators summarily canceled an important art exhibition to be presented at Firestone Library of Jewish artists of the late 19th Century, a period of Jewish art that has historically been ignored. Why? Because two of the artists had been in the Confederate Army in their youth. This action has been roundly criticized, and yet Eisgruber has done nothing to address it.

And all this has happened after Princeton received an awful ranking in the 2021 FIRE free speech rankings – last in the Ivy League and 134 out of 159 colleges ranked.

Instead of showing leadership on free speech, Eisgruber has let his administrators attack it in words and actions. Better, he seems to have decided, to ask the AFA insolently: “Are you asking that I censor the website?”

Perhaps Eisgruber has come to believe that showing a little decency toward Katz might be more dangerous for him than enabling his bureaucracy viciously to attack any professor or student and claim it is free speech. That, in any event, is what Eisgruber has done. Instead of showing leadership on free speech, Eisgruber has let his administrators attack it in words and actions. When finally forced to respond to AFA by the strong criticisms he was receiving, he invented a wholly untenable rationale to justify what has happened.

But he now faces one more problem, one that will be harder to duck or obfuscate: Princeton’s own faculty appeal committee appears to have implicitly shot down his interpretation of the University’s free speech rule and stated that the Katz matter should be investigated. We understand that the recommendations of this committee are almost always accepted by the Princeton administration. Yet there are already signs that Eisgruber intends to stonewall the committee.

The sad truth that now stands revealed is that Princeton’s leadership has betrayed the University’s free speech rule and its heritage. The board has now signaled that it will do nothing about Eisgruber’s assault on the free speech rule. The resulting damage to Princeton’s reputation will become more and more apparent in the coming weeks and years as its leadership intimidates others from dissenting from its orthodoxy on race and other sensitive subjects.

Nothing short of widespread publicity about this debacle and an all-out push by alumni, faculty, and students who respect the University’s core values – including free speech, academic freedom, and viewpoint diversity – can save it.

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